Chinatown Moves Out: Demography and Hate Crime in Modern Asian America

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Take a look at Sugarland in Texas, Rockville in Maryland, and Richmond in British Columbia. What do all of these places have in common? On the surface, they may seem to be average, if slightly more lively, suburban North American communities. They serve their parent cities, Houston, Baltimore, and Vancouver respectively, as many other suburbs do, with most working people commuting during the day and returning after the workday. But take a walk through these places, and the influence of Asian culture is immediate. Chinese grocery stores, Korean barbecue joints, Sushi restaurants, and all manner of East Asian fare line the streets. Take a look at the demographics, and this all starts to make sense.

Despite making up only 5.6% of the US population, Asian Americans make up over a quarter of the residents of all of these communities. In Richmond, just people of Chinese descent account for 54% of the entire city. This same trend is noticeable across North America, from Los Angeles to Boston, these ethnic enclaves are ubiquitous. There’s another thing that links all of these communities: a sharp increase in anti-Asian sentiment and hate crime following the Covid-19 pandemic. Looking at the history and origin of Asian enclaves demonstrates that Asian hate crime isn’t new, and reveals both the internal and external drivers that force this demographic to carve out their own spaces.

It’s hard to talk about the phenomenon of the ethnic enclave, especially in relation to Asian Americans, without talking about Chinatown. Like many other facets of American urban life, these areas have been on a slow decline for decades now. As these communities that have become somewhat synonymous with Asian-ness in America as a whole gradually fade, it’s easy to forget why they came to be in the first place: rampant racism and institutional exclusivism. From the Alien Land Law in California to the federal Chinese Exclusion Act, the attitude of White America contributed to an overall feeling of alienation among new immigrants in the 1800s. Unsurprisingly, these people coalesced into vibrant enclaves based on cultural and family ties in cities all over the continent creating the Chinatowns, Little Japans, and K-Towns we know today.

Back then too, these meant to be safe havens were periodically submitted to violent bouts of hate from their surroundings. In 1907, the Asiatic Exclusion League ravaged the Japantown and Chinatown in Vancouver. In 1871, another mob conducted the worst lynching in US history, killing 17 Chinese men and boys in Los Angeles. In 1900, in a cruel incident that mirrors our current situation, police and vigilantes in San Francisco surrounded the Chinese community because of a Bubonic Plague outbreak from Australia. Anti-Asian sentiment in America is nothing new, so it’s not surprising that it continues to this day.

For those more recent immigrants in the suburbs, as well as for those who have been here for centuries, now moving out to the suburbs, their new communities represented something different. Although the New American Suburban Dream was itself created because of racist redlining, the single-family home and green lawn represented a new future for these residents. All too aware of the violence that visibility in the urban core can bring, they sought to build more inclusive areas that could still seem non-threatening to their white neighbors. Driven by a surge of new jobs in technology, the people comprising these neighborhoods could realize their own American dream.

But hate has followed them there, as was the case in Vancouver and Richmond. As a whole, anti-Asian hate crime in the US increased by nearly 150% in 2020, ostensibly because of the ongoing pandemic. In March of 2021, police officers simply dismissed the motives of the gunman that perpetrated the shooting that killed 8 people as connected to a “sex addiction.” The fact that this crime occurred in Atlanta is also no surprise, as this city is served by its own growing Asian enclaves, mostly concentrated in Gwinnett County in towns like Duluth and Suwanee. Simultaneously with this trend of suburbanization, Asian-Americans are also moving more towards southern cities as new jobs for people with higher degrees of education pop up in these areas. That’s why incidents in states with smaller but growing populations like Georgia and North Carolina have become surprisingly common.

Even as these attacks increase though, the terror that they inflict on the growing communities around these cities goes unnoticed. Across the country, hate crime against Asian-Americans is underreported and under-prosecuted, as officials often don’t cast this specific racial minority as particularly targeted. As the demography of Asians across America continue to change, the disruptions that these shifts can cause may further stoke tensions, even as the pandemic winds down. Now that the majority of Asian Americans now live outside city limits, it seems that the trauma that created the ethnic enclave in the first place has followed them.


Photo: Image via Flickr (cattan2011)

More posts by Steven Long.
Chinatown Moves Out: Demography and Hate Crime in Modern Asian America
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